Once upon a time, climate change felt like a distant threat on the horizon. Now it is happening in front of our very eyes. Across the world, global warming is sparking more intense heat waves, more flooding, and more droughts. If climate change continues at its current pace, the social, environmental, and economic costs don’t bear thinking about. To misquote a retail company, there is only Planet A; we have no Planet B.

As the global population soars, however, our growing thirst for energy is still being fed by traditional carbon-based fossil fuels. With urgent action needed to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the UK government has introduced radical compulsory carbon emission reduction targets: As a country, we need to cut GHG emissions by 34% by 2020, and by at least 80% by 2050. Modified by the Climate Change and Sustainability Act of 2006, the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) program is intended to help the UK meet its legally binding international and domestic targets for carbon reduction by cutting the carbon impact of domestic consumers’ homes. This goal is being achieved by promoting measures to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption through the use of microgeneration sources.

The Price of Spare Generation Capacity

Yet the irony is that, while ordinary people are busy doing their bit for the environment, there are coal and gas power stations running at less than optimum efficiency levels, wasting fuel, and increasing carbon emissions. This stems from the requirements to maintain the grid’s security of supply and avoid costly and deadly blackouts. For example, a major power station may develop technical problems and go off-line, or adverse weather conditions could take out transmission lines.

The National Grid has to keep the lights on, and so it deals with potential risks to its supply security by maintaining spare generation capacity. The difficulty for system operators is that they cannot fire up a generator, which uses coal or natural gas, from a cold start if needed very quickly. Consequently, some power plants run constantly because they need to be ready to respond within seconds to increases or drops in demand.

And without some sharp thinking and collaborative effort, the situation is only going to get worse. The UK is already using more and more renewable energy — primarily from wind power — and is set to use more by 2020. Of course, wind power doesn’t give us a constant supply of electricity; our energy supply is held ransom by the forces of nature. Nuclear doesn’t help either, as these power stations have little flexibility; they are usually fully on or off, and so are not well-suited to balance energy on the grid. The UK government’s analysis indicates that so-called short-term balancing costs may increase from £0.70 to ~£5.30 (approximately US$1.16 to $8.78) for each MWh supplied on the grid.

To the Rescue: Dynamic Demand Devices

But help is at hand. Emerging dynamic demand technology is set to help the UK meet its 2020 emission targets by dealing with this seemingly intractable problem of balancing electricity supply and demand. This technology could provide zero-carbon energy-balancing services and perhaps enable faster, cleaner, cheaper integration of renewable generation onto the grid.

Most of the world’s grids have traditionally addressed the energy imbalance issue by adjusting the supply side through the addition or subtraction of generation margin — hence the spare power plant capacity. Dynamic demand, in contrast, ensures security of supply and keeps the grid in balance by fine-tuning the demand side and making subtle, second-by-second adjustments to power drawn by certain commercial and domestic appliances without noticeably affecting their performance. In effect, this bi-directional dynamic demand capability can adjust when power is drawn by the nation’s refrigerators, electric heaters, and air conditioning units.

The UK government estimates that dynamic demand appliances have the potential to reduce GHG emissions by approximately 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. If millions of appliances and loads were fitted with dynamic demand technology, they would eliminate the need for a considerable amount of peaking power provided by plants that would not be required to operate in standby mode. Early research and demonstrations show that these dynamic demand smart appliances used together have the potential to provide significant volumes of short-term load balancing and displace fossil fuel – based generation.

Advantages of Smart Grid Technology

Dynamic demand technology is one of the cheapest and most straightforward carbon-reducing technologies. Its use requires no major upheavals to the grid, planning permission, major construction work, nor radical overhaul of electricity use. And, in the UK and elsewhere, it’s perfectly positioned to drive job and wealth creation.

Backed by a commitment from appliance manufacturers, businesses, and government, dynamic demand energy balancing simply requires that smart devices be fitted into electrical appliances so that their cycling and operation is controllable in response to available power supply. As the UK government’s carbon reduction deadlines draw nearer, dynamic demand smart grid technology is set to play a significant role in enabling renewable generation integration while saving the UK 2 million metric tons of carbon emission annually.

—Andrew Howe ([email protected]) is CEO of RLtec, which is a UK-based energy company that contracts with grid system operators to provide energy balancing services using appliances equipped with dynamic demand.